Thursday, 23 October 2014

Review - Dreamfall: The Longest Journey Limited Edition art book


Review by Richard Williams

Dreamfall is a fond memory for a lot of people and, if the upcoming Dreamfall: Chapters lives up to expectations, will be again for many more. So I thought it a good time to write up a review of the art book which was released with the special edition of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey way back in 2006.

I've been meaning to write this review for a while, in fact, because despite this books size it is, quite possibly, my favourite art book of all. As you can see from the picture it is only the size of the game case, just a little smaller than A5, but what is packed inside fills me with wonder every time I look at it. The layout is, for my money, the standard for every art book ever produced since and it is the standard I'm comparing them to whenever I write a review. A pretty bold and weighty thing to declare, you might think, but this is the book which kick started my collection of concept art books and maintains the pride-iest pride of place in said collection.

So what makes it so damned great? Put simply, the art. Might sound obvious but there you have it. The design art for Dreamfall is an excellent example of the best kind of concept design which seeks to impart not just a visual look but also a feeling, a sense of identity, culture and mood. The pictures make you feel something and that's not something you get every day.

Hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself. A brief description of the book is in order, I think. Firstly, as I said, it's not very big. Aside from the size it's only about 90 pages long. Did I say only? This is a book which was released with a game, something which happens fairly often now with special editions, but modern 'special edition' art books don't typically weigh in at 90 pages. The first Mass Effect art book included with the game? 32 pages. Mass Effect 2? A little better with 48. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game brimming with visual bounty? 39 pages (I'm still waiting for my full size art book Square Enix!). Dark Souls only racked up 60 pages while Hitman: Absolution peddled a not unappreciated 70. There are some games that released art books with a higher page count (Fallout 3 and Killzone 3 neck and neck with 96 pages) but the point is that they are the exception, not the norm. And neither of them are as good as Dreamfall, so there.

It should be mentioned that some of the games included above did get their own full size art books (some of which I have reviewed) but they sure as flip didn't come free with a game so no extra credit there.

Back to Dreamfall. How much of the book is writing? Two pages. The first two pages, if you don't count the contents page, and these are the forewords by the game director Ragnar Tornquist (who clearly won the awesome name lottery) and the art director Christopher Sveen. Aside from that if you see any writing in the book it's only there to credit an artist. OK so you're not getting any insight into the art and design process as you would with a larger book but then again this isn't a larger book. I really appreciate that every single picture has the artist credited and tells you very simply what the picture is of/about. Aside from that every available bit of space is filled with artwork. And I mean every available space. The book is crammed with art, unlike some recent offerings (I'm looking at you, Watchdogs).

So what, exactly, is crammed into every available space? For starters there are character concepts. This is a short section but it displays a nice range of the key characters and gives you a real flavour of the different visual styles between the two worlds (more on that in a moment). There is some spectacular sketch work by Christopher Sveen and Didrik Tollefsen but the majority is 2D full colour designs.

There is an even shorter section on the creatures of Dreamfall and you can see here a lot of the influences the artists were drawing upon (including the Grubber with looks suspiciously akin to the cave troll in Lord of the Rings) but there is also plenty more that is weirdly wonderful and new.

After the first two sections of the book we get to the meat of this visual feast: the worlds. For those who don't know the game at all I shall briefly elaborate. Quite simply the action in Dreamfall takes place across two worlds; Stark, the technology-driven 'real' world set in the early 2200's, and Arcadia which is a world of magic. Travel between the two is only possible by people who are 'shifters'.

We start with Stark and because this is a real world analogy there are many places which do really exist. The protagonist, Zoe, lives in Casablanca and if this is how Casablanca is going to look in 2200 then you should do your descendants a favour and buy up some real estate now. More broadly there's a riot of colours on show here, from the bright and alluring Casablanca to the cold and forbidding factories of Russia (seems they don't do so well). You get high-tech transport mingled with low-tech slums and even a glorious Tibetan monastery. If this had been 90 pages of nothing but Stark designs then it still would have been too short. But of course it doesn't stick with Stark because up next is Arcadia. What the designs of Stark were to a technological vision of the future, the designs of Arcadia are to a land where magic exists. Namely plentiful, colourful and rich in detail and expression. The eerie other worldliness of the Dark People's city is, if you'll excuse the saying, a work of art.

There is a third realm, more mysterious and exotic than the others, called the Guardian's Realm which doesn't take up many pages but which is great to pore over too.

The book rounds off with some vehicle, technology and set piece artwork which are a nice touch and shows the skills of artist Gavin Whelan to impressive effect. Suffice to say I want to ride in the hydrofoil he designed.

To sum up this is a lovely book rich in colour and detail and imagination. Because it came with the special edition of the game it might be harder to track down, certainly if you look for the book alone, but it's worth it for the true collector of concept art. Alternatively you can do what I did. Buy the special edition, keep the book and soundtrack CD (which is pretty damn good), and donate the game.

- Richard Williams